WHICH STAY, WHICH FAIL
The woman who works at Athena, the Greek restaurant two blocks from my apartment, forgets everything. She forgets the specials, so she reads them, stumbling over her words, from the notepad in her pocket. She forgets to bring us water, or silverware. She forgets my girlfriend’s bread, when she orders more, and she forgets to ask if we want desert once we finish. The woman apologizes. She’s older than us—maybe mid-forties. Her dark hair is streaked through with dusty silver (so is mine) and she wears it in a ponytail, waitress-style. She has pale skin, a sharply hooked nose, stringy-long arms. When the woman apologizes we say No! Of course! It’s not a bother! but we both think she’s a terrible waitress, that she won’t last long, and then we think maybe the restaurant itself won’t last long either. It’s new, after all—it’s only been here a few months—and the economy is wretched, after all, and anyway most restaurants fail: this we all know. So many other restaurants have failed, up and down our street, many of which were our favorite restaurants, and when this happens Jill and I think It wasn’t our fault! We were regulars! We tasted the baklava! Every day when we walk down the street we catalog the newly failed restaurants, strange dark holes in our once lit streets, and then murmur to each other about what went wrong. These restaurants—which stay, which fail—are a major source of daily anxiety.
And so when construction began on another new restaurant down the street from our apartment, we felt the excited stirrings of speculative anticipation. What would this empty space, so long a vacant corner store, become? Every time Jill and I passed by, en route to wherever lay beyond, we would muse over the construction and comment casually about the likely new occupant, the way people discuss the gender or name of a friend’s unborn baby. Will they name it Greg, or Allison? Will the baby be cheerful, cranky, spunky, shy, or impossibly stubborn like its mother? The sign they hung up along the brick was classy, almost contemporary, with its pale background, its bold red and black lettering. We were so entranced by the newness of it all that it took an extra moment to register their ludicrous name: The Park Slope Bistro Restaurant Bar & Grill. We wondered: what made them stop at bar, grill, restaurant and bistro and what force of self control held them back from adding the words diner, cafe, boulangerie, speakeasy, and chop house? The establishment’s identity crisis was the first indication of its inevitable doom to failure, but we didn’t want to think about that.
When the Bistro Etc opened, Jill and I continued to stalk it from afar, peering in each time we passed by and then commenting to one another about minute details. How nice that they chose to leave the brick exposed. How odd that the bar takes up most of the room. Why would they ask the waiters to wear suits to work when this is such a casual neighborhood? They’d be better off in jeans and a t-shirt, we decided—more down home country or, perhaps more happily, more hipster-ironic. Each day, passing by, we watched with small pangs of agony the well-dressed man pacing the space, alone, gazing beseechingly out the windows. Each table lay beneath a crisp white cloth, each glass cradled a matching white napkin, each waiter circled the space each evening like a wayward goldfish, each pedestrian tended to walk by, maybe glancing inward, then away.
As time went on, without meaning to, Jill and I found ourselves cataloging the details of the Bistro Etc’s slow decline as though we were professional restaurant consultants. If they immediately got rid of those tablecloths, we decided, they’d have better luck. They should have had an opening party with a beer tasting. They need to offer a special cheese one can normally only find on the outskirts of Reykjavik, and then overprice it. We became obsessed, but in a disinterested fashion; we discussed it the way you discuss the weather, or the score of a baseball game. Every time we noticed a customer there, we’d get happy for the bistro, and quietly cheer them on. “I wonder if they’re enjoying their dinner,” Jill would mutter to me, and we’d watch, in nervous awe, as the couple sipped at their wine. “Do they seem happy, do you think?”
My brother, despite being the one family member who expresses the emotions the rest of us repress, is a lot like me. We share certain familial bonds (nature, nurture, whatever): a heightened sensitivity to other people’s suffering, and a flare for the sentimental. I told my brother the story of the Bistro Restaurant Bar & Grill one night when he and his wife were in town; we were all crowded into the back seat of my dad’s Volvo driving back to their house in Philly after a dinner out. My brother moved to Taiwan about six years ago, just after getting his graduate degree in the fine arts. He met and married a Taiwanese woman named Ding who is about as eccentric as he is (she suggested he get ex-rays on one of their first dates because my brother was obsessively worried that the pen cap he swallowed in fifth grade might still be lodged in his gastro-intestinal system. They rushed off to the hospital, and of course sat most of the night before being seen, and when the doctor finally gave Kevin the verdict, the man didn’t crack a smile while telling Kevin his abdominal pain was gas, not a pen cap).
“Oh! God, stop! This story is giving me an ache in my spleen!” my brother exclaimed over my description of the Bistro Etc, clutching at his abdomen in mock agony. Then again, maybe it was real agony. I don’t quite understand how feeling another person’s pain works, exactly, but I can start fully bawling after watching an older woman trip and fall on the sidewalk, especially if the woman seems confused, like she’s wondering where her youth went, and how did she suddenly turn old? “I think it’s the pacing waiter in the full suit that makes it the worst. Or maybe it’s his expression when he stands in the window mournfully gazing outward each time we pass. You know, they must have taken out loans when they opened the restaurant. Maybe this is their one real dream in life.”
“Ah! Stop it!” Kevin moaned, “It feels like there’s a field of knives stabbing my pancreas!”
Kevin and Ding live on the outskirts of a medium-sized city renowned for its historic Buddhist temples, and either ride motor-scooters into town for work each morning, or, if feeling sprightly, walk the few miles to the train station. Along the walk from the station toward their apartment, there is a crossroads with two restaurants, one on each corner. Kevin and Ding would go to the restaurant on the left corner a few times a week on their way home; the place is humble, the same woman who owns the place would serve them every time. They would get something quick and cheap and eat it quietly before continuing on their walk home. A coworker mentioned that the other restaurant, the one on the opposite corner, is pretty good too. Kevin and Ding started thinking, why did they always patronize the same restaurant? Only boring people do that. It was time to live a little. So they went to the opposite restaurant, “but we felt sneaky about it! We crept around the back. It was dark and it was rainy, but we felt convinced she’d see us, and so we wrapped our coats around our shoulders and hunched in and hoped she wouldn’t notice,” said Kevin, hunching his shoulders in the back of the car. Ding leaned over him; there were four of us in the back seat and we barely fit; I think I was mostly on Jill’s lap. “We felt like spies,” explained Ding. “Creepy bastard spies.”
“Well, but surely the woman doesn’t think you only eat at her restaurant,” I offered.
“No, but the restaurant across the way serves exactly the same food. But better! The food was better, and after that we knew there was no way we could go back to the first restaurant.”
“Our taste buds were tainted,” said Ding.
And then one night Kevin and Ding walked past the crossroads, going into neither restaurant, but the woman, from the place on the left, waved to them from the doorway.
“She asked us where have you been? Why don’t you come anymore?” said Kevin, guiltily.
“It’s terrible, we hate her,” Ding said.
“We can’t face her anymore. Now we walk home a different way.”
It rained so hard on the night my dad drove us home from the restaurant in Philly that you couldn’t see a thing out the window, but I didn’t pay attention to this because I was listening to their story, watching Kevin and Ding’s crunched bodies angling toward mine and gesturing rapidly as they spoke. It was raining so hard that my dad hunched forward over the steering wheel, saying nothing, straining his eyes on the few feet he could see in front of the car as he drove. The rain battered the top of the roof so hard it sounded like hail, and the rain piled up on the highway so fast the car was hydroplaning, over and over, in little floaty spurts every few minutes. Out of the four of us in the back seat, Jill was the only one who noticed how tenuous our situation was in that metal box on the highway, and how close we all were to death. Finally, she nudged me. “Is your dad a good driver, would you say?” she asked.
After we left Athena, the night the bad waitress served us, Jill and I without thinking about it invented the woman’s life on our walk home and proceeded to feel miserable about it.
“I hope that woman makes it past her first week,” Jill mentioned, casually.
“It’s a bad economy,” I commented.
“She’s, what, mid-forties, do you think?” asked Jill.
“She probably has kids.”
“I wonder what she studied in college. I wonder what she did before this.”
“Not waitress. Maybe she’s never worked before, and her husband just got laid off, and they’ve got two young kids, and now they can’t afford dental insurance, and so she’s out there, trying to keep the family together.”
“Oh, God.” Jill said, looking strained. She turned to me and laughed. “That’s ridiculous, stop it.”
“Ha ha. How did she manage to leave our breadbasket on the empty table next to ours, anyway? How is that even possible? There was no one sitting there!”
A few months after the Park Slope Bistro Restaurant Bar & Grill closed, a new restaurant opened in the same space, with the identical look (“I think they must have bought the napkins!” commented Jill), and we wrung our hands and speculated over its possible demise, but not for long. The food is terrible; it’s the only Indian I’ve ever eaten without any spice at all, hot or otherwise, but somehow, improbably, they have customers. People are always in there when we walk by, there sipping wine, there eating bland food—and they seem happy.
Anne Hays is the founding editor of Storyscape Journal and a forthcoming zine project called Alex. Her pieces have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Revisions, Submerged, and Lumina. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner, cat and dog.